Why terrorist bomb-makers are like journalists

What happened to Al Qaeda?  a Trueslant colleague asked me. First it was the Underpants Bomber setting his genitals on fire, and now the Times Square bomber who displayed explosives skills worthy of Moe, Larry and Curly (if the Three Stooges had decided to commit mass murder). It’s a sign of how weary, frightened and resigned we have become to terrorism that we’re almost more disturbed when a bomb doesn’t go off than when it does.

Why are the latest terrorist bombers so inept? I think the easiest answer is that terrorist bomb-making is like journalism. Anybody can do it, but not everybody can do it well. Back in high school in the ’70s, I had friends who chortled over the Anarchist’s Cookbook and its easy-to-use recipes for making plastic explosives. They never tried them out, but if they had, I’m pretty sure the only place they would have managed to blow up was their parents’ basement.

During the onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombers around 2000, the Israelis discovered that while any jihadi schmuck could wrap a bomb around his stomach, the bombs themselves were made by a few craftsmen. So the Israelis made a point of tracking down the bombmakers, and then dispatching an Apache helicopter to fire a Hellfire missile through their window. The U.S. has adopted this model, using CSI-style forensic analysis of IED attacks. Eliminate the bomb craftsmen, and even if the attacks won’t stop, they will be less effective.

We still think of the old Al Qaeda dispatching large, highly trained terrorist teams to blow up embassies and hijack airliners in meticuously planned operations. But Al Qaeda accomplished that when it was largely under the radar and (foolishly) discounted as a threat. Whatever centralized leadership it had is dead or at least dispersed, and terrorists have learned what the Mafia knows; a 12-man conspiracy is an invitation to get caught. The new Al Qaeda is just a decentralized organization that trains eager, young fanatics in how to build bombs, and then sends them out on solo missions. I think we will discover that the Times Square bomber received some training in Pakistan, returned to the United States, and tried to apply what he learned. But Faisal Shahzad was a junior financial analyst, not an engineer. Him trying to build a bomb was like my mother trying to change the timing belt on her car.

Is this development good or bad? Well, is the transformation of journalism from paid professionals to an army of part-time bloggers good or bad? It’s just different. The good news from Times Square was that an inept bomber rigged a device that didn’t go off. If Osama Bin Laden had opted for a car bomb on 9/11, you can be sure that it would have gone off. The bad news is that any angry Muslim-American – or white militiaman, or just a motivated psycho – can build a bomb.  There’s a good chance that it won’t go off, or if it does, the only person the bombmaker will kill be himself. But we won’t see them coming. And given enough chances, they will succeed.

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16 Responses to Why terrorist bomb-makers are like journalists

  1. ignatiuscrumwald says:

    I think it might be the new policy changes at the FBI where they no longer help suspects build bombs.
    We all felt a collective embarrassment when the underwear bomber failed to get up, go to the bathroom, shut the door and light his drawers on fire in privacy or when the Hutaree Militia couldn’t even get together an actual device in time for their charges of “attempted use of weapons of mass destruction”.
    My solution would be to call your congressmen and put the pressure on to allow the FBI more leeway to use paid confidential informants to bring suspects along so we can have a mass murder that we as a nation can be truly horrified by again.

    • Michael Peck says:

      You’re assuming the FBI could competently build bombs. We would have to subcontract this to the lowest bidder.

      • ignatiuscrumwald says:

        No, you’re right. I don’t think they can find another former Egyptian soldier like Emad Salem at today’s prices, what with all the PMC’s sucking up all the good talent.

  2. jake brodsky says:

    Be thankful that they are this incompetent. I would rather not think of the carnage that would have resulted if Shahzad’s plans had worked. Perhaps one reason why these groups have to rely upon such poorly supported and trained foot soldiers, is because the US military and the various police forces here in the US have been doing a good job targeting the people that matter.

    The rest of your comparisons are too bizarre to consider. The only thing I think the new models of Journalism prove is that we’ve been putting too much faith in the educational systems for training people on what Journalism is really all about. But that has very little to do with how terrorists are recruited or trained. –unless you’d like to tell me something really juicy about how Journalists are made? 🙂

    • Michael Peck says:

      To the extent that the military, CIA and law enforcement can thwart complex attacks like 9/11, that’s a good thing. But terrorism is like a virus. It mutates into a different strain.

      I wasn’t comparing journalism training to terrorism training (though I’m sure critics on the right and left would love to make the comparison). My point is that terrorism or journalism or bomb-making, everyone can do it, but not everyone has a natural aptitude for it.

      Incidentally, with a name like Jake Brodsky, you should be a journalist.

      • jake brodsky says:

        Engineering: the opportunity to design wonderful things. Journalism: the opportunity to discover and report spectacular failures.

        I think I’ll stick with Engineering. 🙂

      • leonkelly says:

        Us engineers were never the focus of angry Marxist academic ideologues in our formal education. It is better to be associated with Thomas Edison than Dan Rather. Then again, the few engineers that have occupied the White House have been pretty lackluster. i.e. Jimmy Carter, an Annapolis-trained engineer and designer of American Malaise. Jimmy counseled the American people to learn to expect a less of themselves.
        You’re right…stick with Engineering.

      • Michael Peck says:

        I’m sure you would be a better journalist than I would be an engineer!

  3. Mr. Peck,

    I think that you are correct that al Qaeda’s level of technical competence is but a tiny fraction of its former self (although he seems to have actually been trained by the Pakistani Taliban but lets not too technical here). So too with the individuals. Rather than highly dedicated and trained terrorists, they have emotionally disturbed amateurs. The fact that they start singing like canaries to the FBI at the first opportunity is an indication of how poorly prepared these individuals are. So it is, on the whole, over the short term, a very good thing that these terrorist organizations have lost their mechanical mojo.

    However, over the long term however it is of little significance. Al Qaeda & Taliban are the symptoms, not the disease. The disease is a huge population who sees their lives and nations as oppressed and exploited. The people of south-west Asia have for almost 100 years been searching for a way to reclaim their homeland, first from the Turks, then the British and French, and lately the US. They can see that they had had the greatest natural resource in history and soon they will have nothing but a land with empty drill holes. Only a hand full of emirs and sheiks got rich and everyone is left with not very much. In the past, modernist leaders, nationalists like Mohammad Mossadegh, or leftists like the George Habash, tried to offer an answer but failed, or more specifically, were crushed. Al Qaeda can say “Look what modernity has brought us, oppression, exploitation, and failure. We need to reject modernity and return to a glorious universal Caliphate.” Al Qaeda can also say “Look what we did in Afghanistan, we drove out the Great Satan of communism, we can do the same to the US. We have succeeded where the modernists have failed”.

    If tomorrow every al Qaeda, Taliban, &c operative were to disappear, in a few years some new organization would arise to take its place. All of our bombs and guns can only kill people, not the needs and desires of whole populations.

    • Michael Peck says:

      Agreed that we shouldn’t overestimate the technical aspect. Israel eliminated a lot of Hamas bomb craftsmen, but the security wall – and a shift in Hamas tactics from suicide bombers to firing rockets – probably did more to stop them. Sort of like the police focusing on a few master criminals who commit the majority of crimes. It won’t stop crime, but it might lessen the severity.

  4. gulugulu says:


  5. Two thoughts:

    I did use a version of the Anarchist’s cookbook when I was young and didn’t blow myself up or any appendage off.

    How much media attention was shifted from the underwater gushing oil rig in the gulf to cover this non-threat?

  6. bigenyc says:

    Between your article and other recents like the NY Post front page calling the Times Square bomber inept and bumbling, don’t you think that media should back off poking a stick at a cornered animal?
    I live in Chelsea, not too many blocks from where this attack COULD HAVE SUCCEEDED!
    What the f*ck???
    Oh, let’s thank this poor bastard for saving 900 police jobs. Maybe if he blew a hole in the pavement on 45th and 7th we could employ MORE people in this economy.

    Just back the f*ck off!!!

  7. Michael Peck says:

    Laughter is a defense mechanism. It’s the only defense that most of us have against the horror of a terrorist bomb.

    Terror is what terrorists want us to feel. If they can scare us, then we will change our behavior, and that success will encourage them to commit more bombings. But I understand how you feel. You’re right that this isn’t lighthearted tale about a kindly but stupid villain. This was attempted mass murder.

  8. brianwood says:

    If I don’t giggle, the terrorists win? Look, the guy was Wile E. Coyote without the smarts to purchase from a good, solid business like Acme. The potential: horror. The actuality: Wile E. fell off the cliff. Wile E. did NOT catch the roadrunner and disembowel him in front of our eyes.

  9. brianwood says:

    That setting the genitals on fire in your second line is sticking with me like my most recent earworm: “Tears on My Pillow.”

    Take that!!

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